“You either get Norfolk, with its wild roughness and uncultivated oddities, or you don’t… It doesn’t ask to be loved” - Stephen Fry
The great beauty of the Broads - twelve large and twenty four smaller lakes with over 200 km of navigable rivers and dykes - is undisputable. But is this landscape, an idyllic holiday destination teeming with wildlife, quite what it at first appears?
The Norfolk Broads are Britain’s largest wetland habitat and one of Europe’s most important sites of biodiversity, but they are also an entirely human landscape created by people in search of a fuel alternative to firewood. The Broads exist because of demand for their peat.
Peat is a slow burning fuel made naturally from layer upon layer of dead plants which have been preserved in swampy environments and compressed over thousands of years.
Britain’s largest protected wetland
Peat cutting was at its height in Norfolk from 900 -1300 AD. Over this time, Norwich monastery alone burned more than 200,000 bales of peat a year.
Within a 200 year period over 250,000 cubic metres had been cut, leaving wide, relatively shallow pits in the landscape. As the medieval period continued, the activity began to decline partly because the Black Death reduced the population numbers, making such labour intensive work more difficult.
The clay soils surrounding the peat beds did not allow water to drain freely and the ditches and pits slowly filled with water, creating what we now know as the Broads. Today is it Britain’s largest protected wetland and rich in biodiversity.
Gradually activity on the Broads shifted from trade and commerce to recreation and pleasure-seeking for Victorians. The coming of the railways promoted the Norfolk Broads as an essential holiday destination for the new middle classes seeking fresh air and outdoor adventure.
By the 1880s a network of railway lines connected the Norfolk Broads and coast to London and the Midlands. Steam packets began carrying passengers between Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft and smaller steam launches became a common site on the Broads. Riversides became popular picnic spots with the new craze for ‘al fresco’ eating.